Like all recent Fords, the S-Max has the latest family face that makes it instantly recognisable. It actually works better on this big seven-seat MPV than it does on some of the firm’s smaller, sleeker models, making this one of the most handsome cars in the class. You’ll notice some nice sharp lines that make the S-Max look a bit less boxy and awkward than many of its rivals, while the neat shape of the LED rear light clusters finishes things off nicely. All models get alloy wheels, but Zetec cars miss out on the smart-looking LED daytime running lights that the other versions get. On top of that, Titanium trim adds rear privacy glass, while Titanium Sport models have a sporty body kit and sit a little lower on sports suspension.
The latest S-Max was released hot on the heels of the recent Mondeo, and the cabins of the two cars have much in common. That means they share many of the same strengths. The seats are wonderfully supportive and the driving position is spot-on, while the touch-screen infotainment system that controls most of the car’s major functions is fairly (if not completely) intuitive to use. However, it also means that the two cars share similar weaknesses. The materials look pretty nice in places, especially on the doors, vents and steering wheel, but in others, the plastics feel hard and cheap. The glovebox lid and the plastic panel that’s slap-bang in the middle of the centre console being the worst offenders. The interior design is rather drab, too, but at least the visibility is good, so it’s easy to judge the dimensions without worrying too much about scraping the paint.
This is the most important area for any MPV, and happily, the S-Max gets very high marks
This is the most important area for any MPV, and happily, the S-Max gets very high marks. Anyone sitting in the front five seats will be spoiled for space no matter what their size, and you can even get two adults in the rearmost two chairs reasonably comfortably – although, for that to happen, those in the middle row will have to sacrifice a little kneeroom by sliding their chairs forward. All five of the individual seats behind the driver easily collapse flat into the floor in a variety of configurations, to leave you with a load area of varying sizes; it’s massive in two-seat mode, still pretty massive with five seats in place, but only adequate when you’re seven-up. High-spec Titanium models come with the added convenience of a set of switches that let you drop all the back seats at the touch of a button, but sadly they’re optional. The S-Max doesn’t have sliding rear doors like some rivals do to make access to the back easier, but scrambling in isn’t too much of a struggle. Another handy feature which lets you wave your foot to open the boot is also optional across the range. Overall, the S-Max is very good, if not class-leading, for practicality; but, if you do want more, you should look at the S-Max’s bigger brother, the Galaxy.
Ride and handling
This is another area where the S-Max has the beating of most of its rivals. Importantly for a car that’s designed to ferry families, it delivers a comfortable ride, doing a good job of smoothing out craggy surfaces and dealing with bigger bumps and potholes in a smooth, controlled manner. Well, that is the case as long as you avoid the Titanium Sport versions, which get a lowered suspension set-up that rides a bit more firmly – although it’s not uncomfortable. The car’s impressive rolling refinement also means this is a relaxed car to travel in on the motorway. Unlike most MPVs, though, the S-Max manages to combine this general comfort and civility with an entertaining drive. You never forget that this is a big, heavy car, but with plentiful grip, tight body control and sharp, responsive steering, there’s still some fun to be had. It feels a bit more grown-up and less of a hoot that the first S-Max, but given the choice we’d pick the extra refinement of the new model every time. .
With cars of this size and weight, diesel engines are always by far the most popular. Four are available – all 2.0-litre turbos – giving 118bhp, 148bhp or 178bhp and 207bhp. So far, we’ve only had the chance to drive the 178bhp version, and it’s pretty sprightly. It pulls strongly from low revs, meaning you can build speed adequately without having to downshift most of the time, and it feels very punchy indeed once it gets into its groove. Refinement isn’t half bad, either, with noise and vibration being effectively isolated from the cabin. They’ll be a lot less popular, but a couple of turbocharged petrol engines are also available, a 1.5 with 158bhp and a 2.0-litre with 237bhp. We’ve tried the more powerful of the pair, and although it feels brisk enough, it can sound a wee bit strained when you work it hard. Anyone keen to tow a caravan, or just after some extra traction for tricky winter conditions can choose to add an intelligent four-wheel drive system to the 148bhp and 178hp diesels, which shuffles power around to whichever wheel needs it most.
It costs a little more to buy than its main rival, the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso
Buying and owning a Ford S-Max won’t be a particularly cheap business. It costs a little more to buy than its main rival, the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso, and with a claimed average fuel economy of 56.5mpg and CO2 emissions of 129g/km, the most popular version – the 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel – will cost you quite a bit more to run as well, as there are versions of the big Citroen that sit two tax bands lower. Ford is famous for its discounts, so you don’t necessarily need to be put off by the high list price, but it’s not yet clear how the big Ford will fare on resale values. Traditionally, the S-Max hasn’t been the strongest on that score, a knock-on effect of those tempting showroom deals.
Look at Warranty Direct’s reliability Index, and the story on the S-Max is something of a mixed bag. As a brand, Ford is flying pretty high in the manufacturer rankings, but the previous version of the S-Max is far from being one of the firm’s most reliable cars, with a score that’s average at best, concerning at worst. Engine problems and electrical issues seem to make up the bulk of the glitches, so we can only hope at this stage that the latest car can improve on the performance of what went before. On the plus side, any repairs you do need to carry out will cost you less than in rivals such as the Volkswagen Sharan.
The S-Max is available with some seriously clever assistance systems to help make your motoring as safe as possible. Included in these are a system that steers you into, and out of parking spaces – both parallel and perpendicular ones – and checks for approaching traffic as well. There’s also a traffic sign recognition system that automatically amends your speed accordingly, and an autonomous braking system that applies the brakes automatically if an impending low-speed collision is detected. However, it’s perhaps a little disappointing that this last item is optional and not standard, when it’s included in much smaller, cheaper cars from other manufacturers. Standard safety kit does include tyre pressure monitoring, stability control and a whole bunch of airbags, all of which helped the car to a full five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP.
Upgrading to Titanium trim (which we’d advise) earns you sat-nav and cruise control
The entry-level Zetec trim comes with a decent slice of standard kit, including a DAB radio, keyless entry, front and rear parking sensors, the touch-screen infotainment system and four powered windows. Upgrading to Titanium trim (which we’d strongly advise that you do) earns you sat-nav, automatic lights and wipers and cruise control, which we’d deem as essential kit in a car like this, while Titanium Sport trim gives you heated front seats and a sports suspension on top of all those styling goodies we mentioned above.
Because it’s one of the roomier, more practical and family-friendly MPVs on the market, and it’s also the best MPV of its type to drive. It impresses in plenty of other areas, too, but be warned; it won’t be the cheapest way to get your family around.